Sable offers a scathing review of the historical-mythological fantasy novel Hades’ Daughter; book one of The Troy Game by Sara Douglass.
I originally chose to read this book because I needed to read women I had not read for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, this one had been nominated for the PKD and Locus sci-fi awards, and the premise sounded interesting. It turned out to conveniently be also suited to two other challenges that I was doing. The Second Best challenge is to read nominees for major sci-fi and fantasy awards that didn’t actually win, which I just started doing late in the year; and I didn’t find out until after I had started reading it that the three main characters – Cass, the protagonist, her boyfriend Dosh, and his boyfriend and Cass’s sometime lover Moke, are a bisexual polyamorous triad. Well; it’s not clear if Cass is bisexual (though she might be; there’s a scene later on in which a woman tries to seduce her, but the circumstances are a bit complicated and I’m not sure how she would have reacted had the situation been different), but the guys definitely are. Weirdly, this is something that seems to have been either missed or completely ignored by the people who wrote the blurb for the book, but it’s clearly stated; although, to give sincere credit where it’s due, this is treated casually, and is not harped on as a major plot point, other than in how it affects the relationship between the three major characters; which is worthy on its own of a tip of the hat to a book written in the 90s. (I was thrown out of a restaurant for being kissy with my girlfriend in 1992; that’s where we were in terms of LGBTQ civil rights).
Cass is a thief, Dosh is a prostitute, and Moke is a street artist. They live together and try to make things work on the streets of a cyberpunk future. There are four classes of people; the Umps (the street folk and the common poor); the Techs, the Arts, and the Aris (who are the ruling, moneyed elite; owners of corporations and the like, who have vast powers in this dystopian future). When Dosh gets tortured once too often by a violent client, he signs their triad up to participate in a big-money film. The catch is that these modern films are designed not only to tell you a story, but to make you feel the emotions of the participating characters. Which means that they use real people living their real lives, and you often can’t tell where reality ends and the movie begins.
A handful of things immediately happen and you’re left to guess which ones are part of the show (if any); someone tries to kill Cass for refusing a contract for a heist; a young, lost girl from a higher class who ran away to get away from her abusive father ends up being rescued by the boys of the trio, who take her in; and a high-class Ari art collector offers to patronize Moke (in the classic sense of supporting and funding his work). And . . . go!
It’s great stuff. Much of it centers around these three very well-written and very human characters being human. All of their strengths and all of their flaws come into play, and an astute reader can see how things may have unfolded in an entirely different way if the three had been different people. The ending is not quite what you expect either. The writing is hypnotic and it takes you immediately along for the ride. We see the world through Cass’ eyes, speaking in a very personal first person using the slang and the context of her time period (which is completely self-invented; and there’s only the faintest trace of 1990s roots that perhaps no one who wasn’t a youth in the 1990s might notice). Once the action starts you don’t want to put it down.
There is one glaring plot hole that is never quite resolved. It becomes clear later on that the viewer of the video movie will be seeing and feeling things through the perspective of the actors. So then why are real people with real lives necessary at all? Still, if you close your eyes and ignore that, the book is truly excellent. It’s why I didn’t give it a five star rating though.
This book was a very influential one, perhaps directly leading to our later fascinations with cyberpunk and dystopia, and virtual reality-enhanced art, so definitely pick it up and give it a try. I just might pick up the sequels; all the other reviewers I’ve read say they aren’t up to the caliber of this one, but this one is good enough that they might be able to afford the loss.
Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges, including a short review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and of “The Mauritius Command” by Patrick O’Brian. Also, what to expect in the next couple of weeks and the rest of my reading list for the challenge!
I started reading this book because it was nominated for the Andre Norton Award this year and it met a few other criteria for reading challenges I was doing; it was a post-apocalyptic novel and it was written by a female author I’m not familiar with. This was Fran Wilde’s first novel. The Andre Norton Award is given for young adult or teen science fiction and fantasy; it is presented with the Nebula Award and otherwise follows the same criteria for nomination and voting.
Fran Wilde is wonderful at world-building. Her universe is truly unique. In some world which might be our own in the far future or something entirely different, people live in high towers made of the bones of living creatures that form cities. The cities can be encouraged to grow their towers (structures that are entirely of bone) higher and higher, but they also demand human sacrifices. This is all presented as matter-of-fact. We know that this wasn’t always the way things were because the characters refer to a time they call The Rise, in which people rose up in the towers above the clouds; which they had to do because invisible monsters called skymouths, that have single central eyes and tentacles, live in the clouds and they’ll eat you. We also have hints of the previous world, where there was once metal and now there’s not. However, they still have glass, so I assume it’s not the process of forging metal that’s been lost, but rather, they don’t have the materials. One might think that they have trouble getting things from the ground when they live so high above the clouds; but obviously they get sand from somewhere, so . . .
Almost everything the people use is made from the parts of the skymouths; sinew, bone, etc.; or perhaps the bodies of birds (which are, of course, not in short supply,) or spider silk, or what plants they can grow in pots. Wilde is wonderfully consistent about this and does not allow anything to be made out of anything else, though I think she overdoes it a bit because she has to constantly point out that the knives are made of bone. I think this is redundant, because of course the knives will be bone by default and in the course of the first person point of view, I doubt that our protagonist, who was raised in this society, would take any special note of a knife made of bone.
Wilde’s acknowledgements thank scientists who taught her about bone and about wind currents, but I wish she’d also consulted meteorologists and planetologists, because my sci-fi mind, which took a course on meteorology in high school, knows that humans can’t breathe well if they are high enough in the atmosphere to be above the clouds, which is why we have oxygen masks for depressurized airplane cabins; not to mention that I’m not sure by what laws of physics bone towers could reach such a height without shattering, but I did point out this was a young adult novel so I’ll let it go.
The people who run everything are called Singers, who can control the skymouths with their voices. People have become extremely insular and superstitious, and hold the Singers in almost as much fear and reverence as a powerful priesthood. This is by the design of the Singers, who control people with laws that are enforced by abandonment in this harsh world or by sacrifice to the city. This is possible because there is no paper and writing must be carved on to bone chips, and so most of history and the knowledge of law is maintained through long songs of remembrance, which of course are subject to the same sort of changes and manipulation that any oral history is subject to. Our protagonist, Kirit, has the Singer’s ability, but her mother has rightfully made her afraid of the Singers and so she doesn’t want to join them. She of course is manipulated into doing so anyway.
At this point, the book becomes a fairly typical teen fantasy novel. The protagonist is uniquely talented so she is bullied and people are jealous of her (I personally don’t know why she didn’t punch a certain character named Sellis in the face, or perhaps even pitch her off of a high ledge. People must fall to their deaths all the time and the city doesn’t seem too particular about its sacrifices.) The situation that the character is in is the fault of her parents, whose sins she must fix and who are completely incompetent at protecting her from harm. There is a rigid, stratified society based on thousands of years of history that the protagonist obeys, then sees the flaws of and smashes to bits, despite the fact that doing so puts the entire society in danger (in a way I see the point of liberation from tyranny, but I’m sure there had to have been better ways). She is pitched against her best friend in how best to resolve the issue. I am delighted that the victory is at least somewhat Pyrrhic.
I don’t want to be too hard on Wilde; this is her first novel, and this was written for teenagers. Plot holes and tropes are required tools of the trade. But as a grown-up, I found this a challenging read because of my impatience. It did improve about halfway through but much of it was, to me, a bit tedious.
I am also not entirely certain that our heroine sends the right message. Ultimately she stood up against the tyrannical order at risk of her own life (something I certainly have no intention of condemning,) but she was such a *good* girl. She put up with far more abuse than I would want my daughters putting up with because Violence Is Not the Answer. I think as a species we’re generally agreed that for tyrannical orders without regard for human life, violence is *often* the answer.
So, three stars, because it was good, and it probably deserves the award; but it’s probably better for young readers than for middle aged women like me.
I read this book because I’ve been meaning to read C.J. Cherryh for some time, and also because I was doing a challenge to read 15 space opera books by the end of the year. However, this book is not space opera. It’s a planetary romance. That being said, it’s a really good planetary romance, centered on a fascinating alien culture with about 17th century technology that reminded me very much of an Indus Valley sort of culture, with lots of formalities and strange social customs and caste systems and interconnecting (and internally clashing) racial divides. The plot? Picture Avatar if things had gone poorly.
Admittedly it uses some time-honoured sci-fi tropes that the artsy sorts would tell you immediately mean that it must not be taken seriously, but keep in mind it was written in 1976, first of all; and secondly, I say so what? I think people are far too hung up on being original, and they try so hard that they often lose the elements that make a good *story*. Cherryh is much more interested in character and story than in making sure that her universe obeys hard science, which is downright refreshing in the midst of the modern obsession.
Above all the strongest part of this book were the incredibly well-realized characters. I loved each and every one of them, despite and maybe because of their flaws, and even the villains are empathetic. Cherryh remembers that old saying that a story is something happening to someone you care about, and she has made me care about these characters. Enough that the ending annoys me somewhat, since it is clear that there will be more books to follow this one. I understand there are sequels; and therefore, quite a lot remained unresolved.
It’s a chewy read; the kind of thing you have read in pieces to fully grasp the nuances. You can’t just sit down and devour it. To be honest, with time running out in my late-begun reading challenge I selected it in part because it seemed a thinner book than many others I have and I thought it would be a quick read. Don’t you believe it. But it was worth it.
Thanks to my friends Char Deuling and Casey Wolf for tagging me in this one!
(Incidentally, I’m a writer and I work in a bookstore. Just sayin’.)